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What does "My Brother's Keeper" Mean?

In a story told within the biblical Book of Genesis, Cain slew his brother Abel, whose sacrifices were favored by God.
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  • Revised By: A. Joseph
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2014
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The phrase "my brother's keeper" is a reference to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel from the book of Genesis. It is generally understood to mean being responsible for the welfare of a brother or other sibling or, by extension, for other human beings in general. Cain, who is quoted as having made this statement, claimed not to have this responsibility. The phrase, however, is often used with the suggestion that people do have such a responsibility to care for and watch over their fellow human beings.

Cain and Abel

The story of Cain and Abel appears in the first 16 verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. The phrase "my brother's keeper" appeared in William Tyndale's 1530 English translation. Tyndale's translation was one of those incorporated into the King James Version of the Bible, which was completed in the early 1600s and has been one of the most widely used versions of the Bible.

Abel Murdered

Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd, each sacrificed the fruits of their labor to God. God looked favorably upon Abel's sacrifice, but not Cain's, and in his anger over the incident, Cain murdered his brother.

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Cain's Answer

God later asked Cain where his brother was, and Cain replied, according to the King James Version, "I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?" God, who knew that Cain had killed Abel, punished the murderer by making him a "fugitive and a vagabond." When Cain complained that anyone who came across him would kill him because of his actions, God declared that vengeance would be taken on anyone who killed Cain, and God marked Cain as a sign that he was not to be harmed.

Personal Application

With his question — "Am I my brother's keeper?" — Cain attempted to hide his misdeed by claiming no responsibility for his brother. Followers of Biblical teachings often interpret this story as a reminder that they are, indeed, responsible for the welfare of other people. Someone who is his brother's keeper looks out for and cares for others, even if they are not actually related to him or her. For example, a person who tries to be a "brother's keeper" might donate his or her time or resources to help others and will place the needs of others before his or her own.

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Discuss this Article

anon941854
Post 12

The meaning of a "brother's keeper" is basically what the article says, but the meaning to some people is someone who takes care of someone when they can.

anon348525
Post 11

Just one girl's thoughts.

Whether Cain's response to God's question was sarcastic/flip/casual, the words in the passage speak volumes to people around the world, and *that* is what matters. Maybe Cain did not know the impact of the question when he spoke, and it does not matter; it matters what we see in it.

I am not a religious girl, but I interpreted these passages into a tattoo. It is to remind me that as long as I live, however I suffer, my only true responsibility is kindness, and to know that the world is not all about me. I am merely a part of something much bigger than I can even imagine. --olivia

anon315473
Post 10

You are your brother's keeper. That's why the world is like this today. If you (people in general)

had done this, and America had done this, we as a nation would not be in the shape we are today!

No country in the world has been built on selfishness and survived. Every race in this country has survived because of being a person who realize that yes, you are your brother's keeper!

anon296846
Post 9

The basic question and the unnoticed remark here is what happened to the best gifts of Cain? What was the mind set of Cain before the offerings?

The first murderer did not see himself as a murderer, but instead the anger of vengeance still showed in his emotion. That was the genesis of a whole lot of satanic acts today.

anon279787
Post 8

Being a "brother's keeper" is the highest role ascribable to a red-blooded male. Be assured if you adhere to this dictum and strive to bring about harmony among all of creation, you will be rewarded - be assured, you will be rewarded. Such is the truth.

anon264089
Post 7

What I think it really means isn't just a smart remark, but a literal question. It has been referred to throughout the bible, by Jesus, Paul, Peter and John. Jesus says, "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." This is commanding us to be a "brothers keeper" that we are all responsible for our neighbors, that no matter how much we deny it, it's true we must love and care for our neighbors, friends, and even strangers as if they were family.

anon188971
Post 6

Even if Cain was basically claiming that it just wasn't his day to keep tabs on Able, the underlying theme is of God knowing his sins toward his brother. The Bible is pretty easy to read at face value, but it is generally accepted that it is also meant to be a commentary on humanity as a whole.

anon157310
Post 5

A "keeper" in the English-language Bible is one's master or supervisor, not simply one's caregiver. The term always refers to a relationship between a person of superior status and one of inferior status. In other words, a parent can a child's keeper, a husband can be the keeper of a wife (considered inferior in Biblical times), a slave-owner can be a slave's keeper, an overseer a worker's keeper, and a farmer a farm animal's keeper -- but not the other way around.

Thus, a politician who openly aspires to be "my brother's keeper" is declaring (without intending to, presumably) that he wants to care for and dominate his brother.

anon69308
Post 3

I agree with anon42319. Seems obvious to me. There are plenty of passages about caring for each others' needs and loving one another, but this is not one of them.

anon55280
Post 2

In other words, in American English, the question would have been: "How should I know? Am I supposed to be his babysitter or something?"

anon42319
Post 1

I think, "Am I my brother's keeper?" has been distorted as an admonishment that we take care of others and look out for their welfare.

In reading the passage, I see it only as a rhetorical response to God by Cain in the same manner as someone would say, "It's not my day to watch him." Cain was being defensive, evasive and a bit of a smart aleck.

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